Trump stirred a controversy on Sunday, when he said during an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that Putin deserved “respect” for fighting the Daesh (ISIL) terrorist group.
“But he is a killer,” O’Reilly interjected, only to be shut down by Trump’s response: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
The Super Bowl interview set off a series of attacks against Putin by Republican figures, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling him a “thug.”
“The Russians annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine and messed around in our elections. No, I don’t think there’s any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does,” he told CNN.
Meanwhile, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who ran an unsuccessful presidential bid against Trump, accused Putin of poisoning his opponents.
“When has a Democratic political activists [sic] been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as Putin,” he said in a tweet.
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska also voiced his disagreement with Trump in a similar manner, describing the Russian head of state as an “enemy of political dissent.”
Representative Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, also weighed in on the issue by calling Trump’s comments "deeply troubling and wrong."
US Vice President Mike Pence tried to calm down the tensions later in the day, telling NBC that Trump did not mean to create a “moral equivalency” and was rather criticizing Washington’s previous actions.
“What you’re hearing there is a determination by the president of the United States to not let semantics or the arguments of the past get in the way of exploring the ability to work together with Russia and with President Putin in the days ahead,” he said.
Putin and Trump talked over the phone in late January, discussing a wide range of issues, including the situation in the Middle East, Palestine, and Iran’s historic nuclear deal.